Tuesday, May 29, 2018

Cruising the Web

I'm back from a fun and exciting, but exhausting trip with the Quiz Bowl team I coach to the High School National Championship in Atlanta. I took our team of six great students who have worked hard all year learning all sorts of random information from the president of Guatemala to sub commanders at the Battle of Tours to Russian mathematicians. Out of 352 teams, our team placed 51st and I am so proud of them. The kids are great and so were the parents who came along as chaperones, but it still is a tiring few days to drive there and back, especially smack in the middle of final exams. But working with these kids and seeing them work so hard and be excited about what they learn is one of the most enjoyable things I do as a teacher. I'm always so impressed with how much these kids know and are willing to work compared to what I knew at their age.

It was also nice to take a break from current events and just pay attention to quiz bowl and the NBA playoffs. I was sorry to see the Celtics lose, but am hoping for great things from them next year if the team can stay healthy.

I totally support the executive orders that President Trump issued last week to make it easier to fire government workers. Jazz Shaw links to this description from Government Executive's description of the orders.
Billed as the first step toward broad civil service reform, senior administration officials announced in a call with reporters on Friday afternoon three executive orders aimed at making it easier to fire poor performers and ordering harsher treatment of union representatives.

“Today, the president is fulfilling his promise to promote a more efficient government by reforming civil service rules,” said Andrew Bremberg, director of the president’s Domestic Policy Council. “Every year, the Federal Employee Viewpoint Survey shows that less than one third of federal employees believe poor performers are adequately addressed by their agency. These executive orders make it easier to remove poor performing employees, and ensure that taxpayer dollars are more efficiently used.”

The first order, as described by a senior administration official speaking on background, would reduce the time it takes to fire poor performers and employees suspected of misconduct by standardizing the length of Performance Improvement Plans at 30 days across government. Currently, PIPs vary from agency to agency, and generally run between 60 to 120 days.

“A GAO report shows that it takes six months to a year to remove someone from government, and can often take another nine months on appeal,” the official said. “[This] also encourages agencies to fire someone for misconduct when they’ve been engaged in behavior that warrants it, instead of just suspending them.”

Another executive order significantly curbs employees who are union representatives from using official time, a practice where the federal government compensates a worker for performing representational duties instead of their standard work. Official time recently has come under fire, both from an Office of Personnel Management report and a hearing by the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee.

The order stipulates that union officials can spend no more than 25 percent of their work hours on official time. Additionally, it stipulates that official time can no longer be used to lobby Congress or to represent employees who have filed a grievance or are appealing an adverse personnel action, and it orders agencies to charge rent for union use of federal office space and cease covering expenses for official time-related travel.

The last order directs agencies to renegotiate collective bargaining agreements with federal unions, and to ensure that process concludes within a year. It also orders OPM to develop a Labor Relations Working Group to analyze CBAs for what the administration described as “wasteful” provisions, and it requires that CBAs be published in a centralized, public database for public scrutiny.
Working for the government shouldn't be a permanent sinecure for employees regardless of their performance. Of course, union officials are outraged, but the Washington Times has the information on how hard it is to fire a federal employee.
• Office of Personnel Management data shows federal employees are 44 times less likely to be fired than a private sector worker once they’ve completed a probationary period.

• A recent Government Accountability Office report showed that it takes between six months and a year to remove a federal employee for poor performance, followed by an eight-month appeals process.
And why should taxpayers be paying for union officials to conduct union business on government time?
The order directs agencies to work on renegotiating contracts to cut taxpayer-funded union time by an average of two-thirds, reducing union business interfering with agency operations.

The Social Security Administration estimates it could complete 135,000 more retirement applications or 17,000 more disability determinations annually if taxpayer funding for union activities were redirected to public service functions.

Under one of the orders, federal employees authorized to act on behalf of unions will be permitted to spend no more than 25 percent of their time on union business.

The administration noted that over 470 Veterans Affairs employees spend 100 percent of their duty hours working for a labor union instead of serving veterans. Those employees include 74 full-time nurses.
And why should they get rent-free office-space and taxpayer-funded travel?
The order cuts back on lobbying or pursuing a grievance against an agency on taxpayer-funded union time.

It also authorizes agencies to charge rent to employees that use Federal office space for non-agency business and to stop paying travel expenses for non-agency business.
I don't understand why the employer should be paying the salaries for union negotiators. Maybe that is standard operating procedure in business, but it still strikes me as a skewed way to do things. I don't think that government workers should be able to spend any of their time on the job on union matters, much less 25 percent. If it's that important to the union, the union should be paying for it.

Unfortunately, these executive orders will be overturned by the next Democratic president. If only Congress could do its job.

Hmmm. This seems more than a coincidence.
Ivanka Trump’s brand continues to win foreign trademarks in China and the Philippines, adding to questions about conflicts of interest at the White House, The Associated Press has found.

On Sunday, China granted the first daughter’s company final approval for its 13th trademark in the last three months, trademark office records show. Over the same period, the Chinese government has granted Ivanka Trump’s company provisional approval for another eight trademarks, which can be finalized if no objections are raised during a three-month comment period.

Taken together, the trademarks could allow her brand to market a lifetime’s worth of products in China, from baby blankets to coffins, and a host of things in between, including perfume, make-up, bowls, mirrors, furniture, books, coffee, chocolate and honey. Ivanka Trump stepped back from management of her brand and placed its assets in a family-run trust, but she continues to profit from the business.
On one hand, I don't think business leaders shouldn't be involved with government and their families certainly have a right to conduct business. On the other hand, such international contracts are quite open to manipulation by foreign countries to try to influence the president. Even domestic businesses can be given advantages by those who want favor from the government. The Trump family's holdings seem particularly susceptible to something fishy going on.
As Ivanka Trump and her father have built their global brands, largely through licensing deals, they have pursued trademarks in dozens of countries. Those global trademarks have drawn the attention of ethics lawyers because they are granted by foreign governments and can confer enormous value. Concerns about political influence have been especially sharp in China, where the courts and bureaucracy are designed to reflect the will of the ruling Communist Party.
Of course, this isn't the first time that a presidential relative's business doings have raised questions. Remember Billy Carter and Libya?

Michael Barone takes a historical look at
political scandals involving government surveillance of a political opponent ih light of the whole Russia investigation.
Defenders of the Obama intelligence and law enforcement apparat have had to fall back on the argument that this infiltration was for Trump’s — and the nation’s — own good.

It’s an argument that evidently didn’t occur to Richard Nixon’s defenders when it became clear that Nixon operatives had burglarized and wiretapped the Democratic National Committee’s headquarters in June 1972.

Until 2016, just about everyone agreed that it was a bad thing for government intelligence or law enforcement agencies to spy — er, use informants — on a political campaign, especially one of the opposition party. Liberals were especially suspicious of the FBI and the CIA. Nowadays they say that anyone questioning their good faith is unpatriotic.

The crime at the root of Watergate was an attempt at surveillance of the DNC after George McGovern seemed about to win the Democratic Party’s presidential nomination, just as the government misconduct in Russiagate was an attempt at surveillance of the Republican Party’s national campaign after Trump clinched its nomination.
Barone doesn't think that surveillance would have yielded anything useful in either Watergate or with the Russian investigation. And Barone explains something I'd wondered about - why bother spying on McGovern in an election Nixon was going to win in a landslide.
Both the Watergate wiretap and the Obama appointees’ investigator/spy infiltration were initially inspired amid fears that the upstart opposition might win. The Watergate burglary was planned when Nixon’s re-election was far from assured. A May 1972 Harris Poll showed him with only 48 percent against McGovern. It was only after the Haiphong harbor bombing and Moscow summit in early June made clear that US involvement in Vietnam was ending that Nixon’s numbers surged — just before the June 17 burglary.

In March 2016, it was conventional wisdom that Trump couldn’t be elected president. But his surprising and persistent strength in the Republican primaries left some doubtful, including the FBI lovebirds who instant messaged their desire for an “insurance policy” against that dreaded eventuality.

Their unease may have owed something to their knowledge of how the Obama Justice Department and FBI had fixed the Hillary Clinton emails case. Clinton wasn’t indicted but was left with a disastrously low 32 percent of voters confident of her honesty and trustworthiness.
The contrast, of course, is that the Watergate burglars never succeeded in wiretapping the DNC. The Obama administration was much more successful in their operations against the Trump campaign.
That’s quite a contrast with the Obama law enforcement and intelligence appointees’ promotion of Christopher Steele’s Clinton campaign-financed dodgy dossier and feeding the mainstream media’s insatiable hunger for Russia collusion stories.

Has an outgoing administration ever worked to delegitimize and dislodge its successor like this? We hear many complaints, some justified, about Donald Trump’s departure from standard political norms. But the greater and more dangerous departure from norms may be that of the Obama officials seeking to overturn the results of the 2016 election.
All those who cheer the efforts of Comey and Clapper and Brennan et al should ask themselves how satisfied they are with the precedent that has been created.

Kelly Jane Torrance reports on the solipsism of the Washington Press Corps
as demonstrated on their response to the State Department's release of the Congressionally mandated Country Reports on Human Rights Practices. The report looks at the level of freedom in almost 200 countries and territories. It lists the terrible treatment that ordinary citizens receive at the hands of some of the worst governments in the world. Of particular concern, one might imagine to our press corps would be the abuse, imprisonment, and even murders of journalists bravely trying to expose conditions in those countries. But no. In fact, the media seem much more interested in...their own experiences and their gripes with Donald Trump.
But most members of the media who questioned Michael Kozak, a senior official in the State Department’s bureau of democracy, human rights, and labor, weren’t interested in hearing about the horrors faced by men, women, and children raped, tortured, and murdered by governments around the world. Neither were they curious about what effect the reports might have on those governments or on the policymakers and diplomats in our own. No, they wanted to talk about themselves.

The first question came from the Associated Press’s Matt Lee, whose reporting is distributed to outlets across the country and beyond. “I realize that this report doesn’t cover the United States,” he said as he began his query—which focused almost entirely on the United States. “I’m just wondering how effective you think that you can be in leading by example when you accuse numerous countries of, say, assaults on press freedom when here in this country we have a president who routinely excoriates the press, calling individual media outlets—and individual reporters sometimes—fake news,” he asked. “How do you not open yourself up to charges of hypocrisy?”

Kozak gave a clear answer, free of bureaucratese: “[T]he countries that we criticize for limiting press freedom, it’s for things like having criminal libel laws where you can be put in jail for what you say. It’s for things like yanking the licenses of media outlets you don’t like or, in many cases, killing the journalists,” he said. “So I think we make quite a distinction between political leaders being able to speak out and say that that story was not accurate or using even stronger words sometimes, and using state power to prevent the journalists from continuing to do their work.”

That wasn’t enough for the reporters in the room. They remained indignant. Perhaps they were still stinging from President Donald Trump’s latest attack on the practitioners of their profession, with their tears of rage blinding them to the obvious difference between being mocked in a tweet and being disappeared—permanently.

The second question wasn’t any different from the first. “I’d like to know if you think that such statements in the United States weaken the impact of this report, because the American president has called the press an enemy of the people. And I think at one point he called for a closer look at libel laws or something like that,” a CNN reporter said. “Do you think in the eyes of people that are looking at this report, as an example and as a resource, do statements like that currently weaken its impact?”

Kozak, who has served as an ambassador to Belarus and chief of mission in Cuba, where diplomats were sickened by sonic attacks, used his own experiences in reply. “I don’t think we’d have a hard time explaining that in a lot of places. When you talk to some of my friends in Cuba, for example, who try to be independent journalists there and are routinely slapped around—they also get called names. But I think if it were limited to that, they’d be pretty happy as compared to the situation now.”
Do Washington reporters think that having the President tweet silly and nasty insults at them is in any way comparable to the journalists that Putin has murdered or reporters who have been imprisoned for what they've written?

And then there was this.
Perhaps members of the American media don’t know how different life can be for those—the vast majority of the world’s population—not fortunate enough to live in a country like the United States. Such provincialism is the only reasonable explanation for another part of the AP reporter’s question: “I’m wondering how you can criticize countries for discrimination against LGBT people when this administration’s stated policy is to exclude transgender people from serving in the military.” It’s astonishing for a reporter to wonder how the State Department can rebuke nations that make same-sex relations illegal or worse. It’s a capital offense in some countries. Can he really be unaware of the number of people murdered each year for their sexual orientation by the actions—or with the approval—of their own governments?

Reporters can’t claim total ignorance, however. In his remarks that began the briefing, acting secretary of state John Sullivan spoke, with some specificity, about the country reports. “Creating them is an enormous undertaking and not for the fainthearted,” he noted. Sullivan mentioned the “forced labor” and “child labor” Kim Jong-un’s regime uses in North Korea. He cited “the ethnic cleansing of Rohingya in Burma” and “widespread reports of rape and abuse by Syrian government personnel.” He also gave plenty of examples of places in which the press and protesters face far worse threats than a Twitter tantrum. “The Russian government continues to quash dissent and civil society” and “China continues to spread the worst features of its authoritarian system, including restrictions on activists, civil society, freedom of expression, and the use of arbitrary surveillance.” Turkey has seen “the detention of tens of thousands of individuals, including journalists and academics.” And the “right of peaceful assembly and freedoms of association and expression” in Iran “are under attack almost daily.”
How can reporters not know these terrible stories? These courageous reporters should be their personal heroes and should be celebrated in the western press. Instead, they're obsessed with the theoretical damage that Trump's tweets are doing. I don't particularly like his tweets and his rants on the media. But in light of the occasion these reporters were gathered to hear about, it seems so incongruous to be worrying about the tweets instead of the real-life suffering and lack of true press freedom around the world. Just think if the media took the effort to publicize some of these stories and made the names of those being imprisoned famous throughout the world. Think of the pressure they could bring on those tyrants. Instead we get this anecdote.
Asking the sort of questions reporters put to Sullivan’s colleague afterward will get you imprisoned or murdered in many countries. But self-absorbed American journalists are remarkably selective in their combativeness. I couldn’t find a single one, for example, who’d had the gumption to ask Iranian foreign minister Javad Zarif about his regime’s harsh treatment of protesters during the many interviews he granted while in New York last week. Since late December, the Iranian government has arrested 8,000 and murdered 50 protesters. Reporters, though, were more interested in his view on the other thing that obsesses them, besides themselves. A not atypical question: “Do you see President Trump as a crafty adversary, a bumbling fool, or someone who is simply ignorant of international relations?”

So true.